European Convention on Human Rights

Ancient Rome's Colosseum has witnessed much in the last two millennia, from the slaying of early Christians to the more civilized European Convention on Human Rights. Half a century since it was declared, Rome celebrates the anniversary of this history-making document which in the last 50 years has sought to secure the rights and freedoms of every European, East and West.

The European Convention on Human Rights that came into force on 3rd September 1953 is the main convention of the Council of Europe. It sets up the inalienable rights and freedoms of every one of us and obliges States to secure these for every person under their jurisdiction. All States wishing to become members of the Council of Europe are obliged to ratify the Convention. The Convention, directly inspired by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, sets out a list of rights and freedoms accepted by post-war Western European governments, which were so fundamental as to merit international protection.

The Convention on Human Rights was declared and released for signing 50 years ago, on 4th November 1950, in Rome. Thus, the most important document to guarantee democracy and ensure basic rights and freedoms was born.

Now, years after, these rights may seem obvious the right to live, the right to freedom and security, freedom of religion and faith, the right to privacy (ensuring privacy of correspondence), the right to family life, freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly, as well as the right to fair legal procedures.

The Convention defends citizens against torture and inhuman treatment. It is an open document, subject to supplements, which guarantees that it will never become a collection of mummified law. It systematically embraces further areas of our life. The sixth, additional protocol ratified by the majority of European countries, for example, abolished capital punishment. On 30th September 2000, Poland became one of the last countries to ratify this exclusively European document.

Something that seems so obvious now has not always been so, even for the visionaries of the new, law-based world. The great British philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, the herald of justice and common happiness, did not foresee this 170 years ago. He was a pioneer of utilitarianism; he believed countries should be governed so as to ensure the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. He supported the French revolution, social justice and the reform of the prison system. Many of his ideas were years ahead of their time. Bentham did not, however, believe that people have innate rights. He thought liberty was merely the absence of coercion. Thus rights, in his opinion, resulted from good government, and citizens have only those rights which their governments choose to grant them under the law. The notion of 'natural rights' is simple nonsense, he wrote, 'natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense 'nonsense upon stilts.

Are natural rights pure nonsense?

Rights have not only been granted, but an international mechanism protecting them has been set up. The European Tribunal of Human Rights with 41 judges (one from each country) ensures that citizens' rights are respected. For the first time an international treaty elected a Tribunal to execute its resolutions. But what is more, individual citizens can submit personal claims. By doing so the individual can appeal to the international board of judges against the judgement of his or her national court, accusing them of dilatoriness (that is, making delays, not proceeding quickly enough). Shortly after the ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights in January 1993, Poland with its ill-functioning juridical system was near the top of the league of countries that were most frequently accused by their own citizens. Last year 691 complaints were registered.

Poland is well ahead of Great Britain and now comes fourth on the list, following only Russia, Italy and France. Poles have learnt very quickly that there is an institution outside their own country where they can seek justice.

Favourite offences?

Each country has its favourite offences. The Italians complain that lawsuits take too long in one case legal procedures lasted for 35 years. This is the violation of one of the articles of the European convention, which stipulates that a citizen has the right to a lawsuit completed in reasonable time. The Irish complain that the existing law discriminates against certain groups of people, which, of course, is in conflict with the spirit of the Convention. If the Tribunal finds against the State, then the State is obliged to change its law accordingly so that such violation does not occur in the future.

The Tribunal found the Polish authorities guilty of infringement of the Convention in 15 cases and recommended that compensation be paid to individuals. Very often the cases concern trivial issues. The Tribunal agreed with the complaint of a woman from Wrocław who had been waiting for the telephone line to be fixed in her household for several years. The civil lawsuit against the telecommunications company had still not been concluded after a very long time. In this case the Convention stood by the citizen. Poles have won cases against violation of the right to privacy of correspondence, unjust placing in the drunk can (the place where drunks are detained until sober), refusal by the municipality to pay for work already performed, etc.

There are verdicts that are not popular among the citizens, however. The UK has faced such situations several times. The tabloid press and popular opinion was outraged when the relatives of three IRA activists shot dead in Gibraltar were awarded compensation by the Strasbourg court. The Judges did not consider the alleged intentions of the victims to be relevant. Their rights under the terms of the European Convention had been breached. It is not the only time the British media have accused the Court of interference.

Nonetheless, UK Minister for European Affairs Keith Vaz has his own opinion. 'Sometimes when the court makes a decision that does not have public opinion behind it, there is inevitably disagreement,' he says. 'But that is the nature of the court system. If you have a democratic system of government and people have rights, it is to be enforced by individuals who are impartial and who will administer the law. And therefore they are not bound by what people say in the streets or by public opinion. That is what is so unique and special about the legal system in a democratic society.'

The Tribunal - a victim of its own success?

But to ensure the proper working of the Human Rights Tribunal, member States need to reform their legal systems so that their citizens do not complain to Strasbourg too often. Otherwise, this unique Tribunal serving 850 million individuals will not be able to deliver verdicts in reasonable time. And that would be a breach of the European Convention!

Prime Ministers and Ministers of Justice present at the 50th anniversary jubilee conference agreed to introduce necessary modifications to their respective legal systems in order to prevent the Tribunal from becoming the victim of its own success! The twelfth protocol, for the total ban of all kinds of discrimination, was submitted for signing in Rome 50 years after adopting the Convention. This protocol is a challenge for the coming year and the whole of the 21st century. It states that all citizens should enjoy all the rights ensured by the legal system and that no discrimination should occur on the basis of sex, race, skin colour, language, religion, national and social background, and the political beliefs of minority groups, or for any other reason. No one is to be discriminated against by the authorities.

And this is our wish for everybody and ourselves in for the year 2001